Personal Essay #3 – Kait Topkak

Singing with my Heart


It was evening when I sat with all of my aunts, uncle, sisters, our mother and a couple ladies from our village. We all gathered together in the small church living room, bathed in the light of the churches orange lamps. They sat with withered gospel books or printed copies of the songs on their laps, singing At The Cross, all together in harmony. Some ladies would sing too soon or sing off-key which would be met with smiles and laughs all around, even from the ladies who made the mistake, so they would start again. I peered shyly as our pastor strummed the guitar in melody to my families singing, wishing I can have a chance at giving it a try. The smell of the dusty church and the smell Dr. Pepper on my aunt’s breath was strong, as I sat next to her, who has the loudest voice of them all. There was no question that I wasn’t mesmerized by the new expression of our Lutheran religion. I was 5 years old and as long as I can remember my family has been in the church choir, so it was only natural that I came to love it, too.

Growing up with a family in the church choir in the village, meant going to church a lot and that’s where my cousins and I were grouped into categories; soprano, alto and bass. My aunt is a lady who carries a lot of respect with her, along with her bag that has anything you’ll ever need like tissue, mints, and gum. Naturally, my aunt is in charge of our translated gospel songs and she taught us how to sing in Inupiaq. She would catch us off guard by letting us sing the translated songs with her every year at the Lutheran Church Conference. We never practiced singing the Inupiaq songs, we only grew up hearing them sung, so when she’d call us up to sing, we did really slow, quiet and didn’t know how to properly pronounce the words, but we knew what we were singing about, so we would try our best. My cousins and I were so nervous and sweaty as we looked out into the crowd of people, mostly elders grasping onto our every word we sang, for their hearing is diminishing. Then, when I was a senior in high school, we were able to fluently sing translated gospel songs. Then before we knew it, we were able to listen to the conversations that the elders around us were having in Inupiaq, that used to be foreign to us in middle school.

By the time I was a high school junior, living with my aunt and going to school in Anchorage, my world suddenly became dark and soundless when my cousin received a phone call that Sunday while we were visiting my Papa Chester. I was in the living room as my cousin came in crying “I’m so sorry Kait, I’m so sorry, your sister Karena passed away.' My heart was crying out, until I fell asleep from the heartache. I woke up to my mother’s side of the family that lived in the city around me, comforting and mourning with me. My family in the village arranged a ticket for me to go home. As I was flying home, I thought of the songs my sister loved listening to like Precious Memories and The Prayer by Kid Cudi. At her funeral, my sisters and I were too heartbroken to sing for her, so everyone else on the choir dedicated Never Alone. Hearing those songs felt like having her there with me. She was the strongest woman I knew like in the song by Kid Cudi, but with a whole lot of heart like in Precious Memories.

By the time I got to college and also before I veered off course from classes, I would practice singing by myself or attend church with my grandfather at the small Lutheran church gathering in Anchorage. The pastor called all of the children up to sing. I was new to the service the city had to offer, thinking I was included with the children as my aunt would make me go up if she were with us, started to get up, but was met with a gentle pat on the shoulder by my Papa Chester, so I sat down, feeling the heat on my face. Then the pastor asked the congregations to sing He Hideth My Soul for a person who was sick in the community. At first, there was a piano opening for the song which started out slow and graceful, then a lot of voices joined in and sang in unison for the first verse. All around me I heard different beautiful voices around me, a broad deep voice behind me, a sweet voice ringing like a bell two rows ahead as I joined in. Much to my surprise, my Papa joined in with his elderly voice with a hint of resistance due to his hearing and sight loss, but nonetheless was singing. It was so touching to hear him sing, that I started tearing up, because I’ve never heard anybody on my father’s side sing any gospel songs.

Music in my life has always expressed what I feel inside with a passion. It’s always been joyous, comforting, memorable and at times heartbreaking, but it’s a way to deal with it instead of holding it all in. Hearing the choir sing what my heart is feeling makes me want to sing with all of my 18 nieces and nephews and pass along the tradition. Like my sister Karena used to say “Never hold it in, it’s okay to cry cause you’re vulnerable when you’re crying, but when you’re done you come back stronger than ever. Sing about it if you feel like it and always sing from the heart.'


“Ke cay tese a took lu tah quwiah suloo tah ahgi Yukmmun nevah lu tah hoya go shuwamun un alikshup te noon.'

Translation: “O come let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.'

Psalms 95:1

9 thoughts on “Personal Essay #3 – Kait Topkak

  1. Tometria Jackson

    What a touching and beautiful story, Kait. You paint pictures with your words, and in your opening paragraph, I could see your family’s smiling faces bathed in the warm glow of the church lamps. You described an intimate scenario, and I loved your description of the voices of your family members. The little details you provided about your aunt and your grandfather gave a nice snapshot of their personalities. I liked the way you linked each paragraph together into a cohesive whole. I have a true sense of you as a person, and I understand the importance music has played in your life.

    Constructively, the few grammatical errors didn’t distract from your narrative. Overall, I was left satisfied after having read your story. You didn’t leave anything unfinished, and the quote at the end from your sister was poignant. The Inupiaq translation of Psalms 95:1 at the end was like a ribbon tying everything up.

  2. Delaney E Reece

    Thank you so much for sharing such an important and personal story, its depth is so noticeable and touching. I love that you have been able to share this beautiful story with us. You have managed to incorporate so many feelings and images throughout, and when you describe a scene I almost feel as though I am there too. There are places where you word choice does repeat a bit and I found that to be distracting from the overall story. With that, I also felt some of your introduction was out of place or out of order and the flow overall was impacted. The way you incorporated singing and the experience you had in the church left me with goosebumps, it was an utterly perfect ending.
    Thank you so much

  3. Courtney Kisner

    Your story was beautifully told. I’m so sorry you lost your sister.
    That first paragraph and a half were full of gripping imagery, which was a great way to hook the reader. However, I wanted to know more about your sister–a bit more about her personality maybe or a story that you always go back to when you think of her. I loved how you use music to connect stories, and develop and resolve hardships throughout your essay. I felt like some of the people in your story were lost as you described everything that was going on. I think adding some details about your Papa would help resolve this (along with more about your sister). Besides music and its meaning throughout your life, what images do you want your reader to remember the most? I guess I would just think about that as you make revisions. Overall, the tone of your essay was great.

  4. Lilia Lundquist

    I thought the descriptive detail in this story was absolutely beautiful. I was able to build a vivid image of the women singing in a circle. Though I have never been to such an event I can imagine the warmth in the room from the way you told your introduction. I did notice a few run on sentences which are an easy fix. I also felt like your story was cut a bit short. I am terribly sorry that you lost your sister, I am sure that cannot be an easy story to tell. However, if you are able to go more in depth I think you could truly create a emotion provoking story. You seem to know how to piece words together for mental images you should try to add more!

  5. nmfleming

    I found your story to be beautiful, I am sorry about your sister. I really liked how you included the Psalms 95:1 in Inupiaq. I’d have to say that the first paragraph is my all time favorite paragraph just because I find it to be very vivid, I felt that I was actually there with you. “I was new to the service the city had to offer, thinking I was included with the children as my aunt would make me go up if she were with us, started to get up,” I found this sentence to be the most confusing. I wished that you had added some stuff about your sister, like a small story about you two singing together. Something to explain how hard it was for you to lose her. That advise that your sister gave you, is very inspiring and maybe I’ll start living my life more like that.

  6. Brenden Couch

    I really enjoyed this piece. I appreciate the gravity one feels at the loss of a family member, but I also am religious and I know they aren’t too far away. Singing is a great way to reach beyond the veil that separates the living and the dead or at least for those who don’t believe, you certainly feel closer to your ancestors, lost loved ones through the medium of song.

  7. Jess Young

    This was a touching story that is obviously close to your heart. Thank you for sharing! Growing up with religion, I felt connected to the story from the beginning as you described the choir and the people who sang.

  8. Shana Waring

    You drew me in right away and kept me intrigued throughout the story. You did a nice job of drawing at different senses for the reader to imagine. I think you discussed important details such as family members, family size, and the community feel to allow the reader to easily place themselves in the moment. Personally being someone who connects to music in the same way as you describe, I was able to make a connection with you as a writer. Whether it be great writing or a true story, I believe you conveyed the purpose of your story and ended in a way leaving the reader wanting more of the whole story. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Meghan Geary

    Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt story and memory. I also have been involved in music my whole life and am involved in my church, so I know how much weight each of those things can carry and how much comfort they can bring. I’m glad that you got to feel your sister there with you through the music, and that your church community supported you. The imagery in your writing really drew me in and you had just the right amount of emotion shining through your words, nice job.

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